Texas-Oklahoma: None Bigger

A record 92,200 will be jammed into the renovated Cotton Bowl Saturday to witness a resurgent Texas defense take on a juggernaut Oklahoma offense. Odds-makers says OU is a seven-point favorite, but there are seven keys to a Longhorn upset.

These are: Brian Orakpo, Roy Miller, Sergio Kindle, Roddrick Muckelroy, Jared Norton, Lamarr Houston and Henry Melton (we'll throw in Aaron Lewis and Rashad Bobino for good measure).

In short: Texas' front seven can dictate the pace even against an up-tempo, no-huddle Sooner offense. Texas' pass coverage remains a liability but, arguably, the Longhorns boast the most improved front seven in college football. The Burnt Orange leads the nation with 19 sacks but must now contend with the finest offensive line it will face all season.

That's where Saturday's showdown, pitting the No. 1 Sooners and No. 5 Longhorns, will be won or lost. Forget (for a moment) Texas' youthful secondary, pedestrian running game and lack of depth at receiver. If Texas' magnificent seven can come close to the three sacks, eight TFLs and 14 QB pressures it has averaged this season, this game goes deep in the fourth quarter. If not, it could be a long day for the Longhorns, as Sam Bradford has the second-highest passer rating in college football and will pick apart any defense with his senior WRs and a big, physical TE who will be playing Sundays some day.

"You can play the best defense you can play," Orakpo said, "and those guys will still put up points."

Perhaps Oklahoma's most impressive stat is not its top-ranked Red Zone offense, nor its fourth-ranked scoring offense (49.6 ppg), nor even its fifth-ranked offense (540 ypg) overall. Instead, it may be the fact that the highest-ranked Sooner in individual scoring is listed only at No. 85. It translates into an explosive offensive team with multiple weapons.

Across the board, glaring weaknesses are nearly impossible to detect. However, there is inexperience in key areas. The Sooners replaced both starting cornerbacks this season while a RS-freshman is holding down the WILL linebacker spot. The Sooners also start a RS-freshman PK who has missed two PATs and has been summoned to attempt just one FG. Texas fans can only hope that DT DeMarcus Granger is a bit rusty after sitting out the past month with a foot injury suffered at Washington.

Overall, the best team has won this game in each of the past 11 years. The Sooners own a 6-5 mark during that stretch, including five-straight from 2000-04. It's a bitterly cyclical series; nail-biters have been the exception rather than the rule. Take away last year's 28-21 Oklahoma win and the average margin of victory has been 26.5 points.

Yet, the past couple of contests have been so evenly-contested that the difference was turnovers (Texas suffered five turnovers in 2007, including RB Jamaal Charles' fumble at the Sooner goal line; Oklahoma committed seven turnovers in Texas' 28-10 win the previous season). In short: win the turnover battle and you win the game. The trend bodes extremely well for both teams. Bradford and Texas QB Colt McCoy have thrown just three INTs all season. No Longhorn running back has fumbled through five games. No Sooner has fumbled -- period.

Still, this one boils down to Texas' front seven. There's not a quarterback, at any level, who's going to effectively manage the offense if he's running for his life.

Texas' rhetoric, as of late, has had to do with the improved play of its secondary. The fact remains Texas is yielding an average of 244 yards through the air against squads that don't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the prolific passers that Texas faces the next few weeks. The onus remains on Orakpo and company to try to knock Bradford out of his comfort zone.

Said DB coach Duane Akina: "It's a lot different if we (DBs) make a mistake. Ours are critical. They can really determine the outcome of a football game."

Given Texas' October slate, it can also determine the outcome of a season. Starting Saturday.

Where to begin? - other than with the big uglies up front? There haven't been many Sooner offensive lines bigger and, uh, taller than the one Texas faces Saturday. The two-deep Sooner line averages 6-5, 303 pounds.

"They're great linemen who come downhill when they get off the ball," SLB Sergio Kindle said. "They've been pounding it down peoples' throats and giving Bradford all the time in the world."

Truth be told, OU coach Bob Stoops has fielded two lines that were taller (2002, 2003) and heavier (last year's line averaged 316.6 pounds). It is the most experienced line Stoops has fielded, combining for 160 starts and 230 games played. Three of them garnered All-Big honors in 2007 while LT Phil Loadholt is a beast at 6-8, 337.

"Four of the five offensive linemen are seniors and they'll all be in the NFL Draft this April," Muschamp said.

The unit is allowing an average of just one sack per outing, giving Bradford the opportunity to account for 328.4 ypg (NCAA No. 7). Bradford had logged career-high passing yardage in three straight games before settling for 372 last weekend against Baylor. He is second nationally with a 205.0 passing rating; McCoy is fourth at 197.9. Statistically, the two signal-callers are spitting images of the other.

"Sam doesn't scramble as much as Colt," Texas coach Mack Brown said, "but they're both accurate and they're both team leaders. I thought one of the hardest things would be for a freshman or a redshirt-freshman to step into this game and play well. Both Sam and Colt have done that."

Bradford directs an up-tempo, quick-snap, no-huddle offense incorporated into the game plan this season. The result has been a remarkably fast start for the offense, outscoring foes to the tune of 103-3 in the first quarter.

"They've done a good job of tempo-ing the defenses this year, especially early in the game," Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. "A lot of teams are doing it. We're doing it. Their tempo is a little quicker than other teams we've seen in terms of getting to the line and snapping the ball. You can throw the 40--second clock out the window. It won't matter."

Oklahoma boasts four WRs averaging 17+ yards-per-catch, but Bradford typically looks to Killeen-native Juaquin Iglesias. The senior is slated to start his 30th contest Saturday and has notched 401 yards and five TDs on 23 grabs this season (he also averages 25.6 yards-per-return). Iglesias owns the nation's fifth longest streak with receptions in consecutive games with 37.

Then there's TE Jermaine Gresham, a beast at 6-6, 261 who accounted for both of his team's first-half TDs against Texas last year. These days, he leads his team with four TD receptions (three of which covered at least 22 yards).

"His physical size gives you some issues," DB coach Duane Akina said. "You'd like to match him up with linebackers."

Former coach Barry Switzer probably could not have imagined an Oklahoma team generating two-thirds of its average 540 yards through the air. But that's the number the 2008 Sooners have put up, prompting many to speculate that RB DeMarco Murray may have lost a step since his knee injury at Texas Tech last November. His 65-yard run broke the game open against Texas in 2007. He's had a couple of 100-yard games this season to lead a team averaging 179 rushing ypg (by comparison, Texas' oft-criticized ground game is averaging 198 ypg).

If Oklahoma were to replace four of its back seven starters, would anyone notice? So far, Bob Stoops has not lost any sleep over the infusion of youth at two linebacker and two cornerback spots.

The Sooners rank No. 15 nationally in pass defense (159 ypg), No. 8 in third-down defense (21-of-76 for 27.6 percent) and No. 14 in Red Zone defense (foes have scored on 9-of-14 attempts, including four FGs). The crew ranks third nationally in sacks-per-game (3.8) and TFL per outing (8.6). The defense is yielding just 11.4 points each contest.

Junior MLB Ryan Reynolds is the only returning starter among the 'backers and leads his team with 43 tackles and five sacks. Yet RS-freshman WLB Travis Lewis (from San Antonio) has held his own with 41 stops, including a career-best 12 tackles against Cincinnati.

Senior SS Nic Harris was a 2007 First-Team All-Big 12 honoree and works alongside senior FS Lendy Holmes.

The defensive front remains the unit's strength and is expected to get a boost Saturday not only with Granger's return at DT but also the return of Frank Alexander at DE. Alexander has been sidelined all season after he was stabbed in the arm the night before OU's season-opener. DT Gerald McCoy was the 2007 Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.

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